Does DEI Progress Need To Be Slow? It Won’t Work If It Is

September 18, 2023 | Maureen Frank

I have to be honest, when senior leaders start to plan around inclusion and diversity they sit back and say, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, cultural change takes time patience please Maureen! I cringe and roll my eyes-I know mañana is setting in (for those who don’t speak Spanish that means: Some unspecified time in the future). 

That’s the biggest issue I see with DEI progress put off until tomorrow, or we take the slowly catchy money approach (this old English proverb means that if do not rush or you avoid being too hasty, then eventually you will achieve your goal-in other words, be patient).

For those of you who know me, you know I am not a patient person. I am the one in the room that challenges: ‘Why not now?’

In making the challenge, I am not just being difficult! after 18 years in this space with large organisations around the world, I KNOW THAT THE ‘TAKE IT SLOW’ APPROACH DOESNOT NOT WORK. 

If you have some of the mañana movement around DEI prioritisation in your organization, even if you have a dose of it yourself, think about these tips to drag you out of it and focus on a real result sooner rather than later: 

1. The KOTTER change model actually works! I have been a big believer in using KOTTER as the foundation of my programs on inclusive leadership. He has an 8-step process for change, and he is clear: you MUST have a sense of urgency, or the change will never happen. Why? Otherwise, it’s never a real top-of-mind priority, you never get the planned change ‘done’.

2. The ‘learn and forget curve’ is steep. We sit people in rooms for DEI events, and they get all inspired and determined to do differently tomorrow. We teach them about inclusive leadership for a few hours, and they feel that they are cured. With the best intentions in the world, it’s all out the window in a week, at best, 2 weeks. We take the short, sharp’ let do good PR initiative’ approach because it creates emotion in the moment and a false sense that we are doing something. It aligns with the ‘take it slow approach’, which also means that we will get to the hard work of changing habits sometimes….but we are too busy right now! The process we run with leaders, the 6 Habits of Being Inclusive, is the HOW of inclusion based on the science of habit shift. It requires some heavy lifting, some discomfort in taking action and experimenting and challenging some deep-set ways of doing things, which is what is required to install new habits! It’s not for the mañana crowd-so if that’s your organisation on now, decide to challenge an approach that will NEVER work.

3. The ‘urgent’ will always overshadow the ‘important’ in the priority matrix. It’s rare for me to see a leader who doesn’t tell me vehemently that ‘DEI is important to me, Maureen!’ Yes, it’s important does it ever get focused when it sits amongst so many activities on the ‘important’ list that we never get to?

4. The slow approach means that we never get to the critical mass required to make change happen (another KOTTER element).

5. The mañana movement gives leaders who are not huge supporters below the surface(and believe me, there are way more of them than you think), it gives them an excuse for passive resistance to DEI. ‘I believe, I believe….but come on …what’s the rush?’

So, what’s the solution?

Firstly, you need to challenge the mañana mindset (even in yourself); there MUST be a sense of urgency around DEI, or it will not happen. My advice to CEOs and CPOs over the years has been to honestly say if you can’t have a sense of urgency and commitment at critical mass in your organization FAST, don’t do anything, you are planning to fail.

Of course, when I say things like that, people look at me in horror, they think I am being rude and sarcastic, but I am not. You see, taking a one ‘small step at a time’ approach to this will not work and, in fact, significantly impacts employee trust in leaders around DEI. There is a lot of research on this at the moment. we are walking the mañana tightrope, and employees smell inauthenticity a mile away! 

My advice is to pick something that will be a game changer (recently, we found this with the Inclusive Leadership Shadow process), and make that one thing happen with urgency, at critical mass and with accountability clear. Make being a leader who PROVES their commitment to inclusive leadership, make that proof a prerequisite to promotion. Focus on one thing that really changes behaviour and mindset, and do it well, with urgency and a determination to get to the end within a tight timeframe. Then, pick the next step in changing behaviour, etc.

Taking a big red pen to the laundry list of DEI initiatives can help with this. Cut the ‘samosa party’ and the PR exercises and get to the heart of the issue each and every time you have heard of the leaders who need to change this. 

Everyone is an expert on DEI in your organisation, is my guess. It’s a topic of passion. It’s a topic that has affected everyone in one way or another. I know you have to say yes and toe the line to suggestions on initiates from well-meaning and sometimes very senior people. But it’s time to make a stand, don’t you think? For years, we have ‘followed the leader’ on DEI efforts and ‘must-do’ initiatives. Have we really assessed ROI and true impact on culture and behaviour? I know that’s what I have done over 18 years. I know that to help organisations truly, I must challenge them on this. Otherwise, they will not succeed, and they are at risk as the stakes on DEI get even higher.

If you are a leader in DEI, it’s your job to challenge it. My advice and heartfelt wish for you that you find your courage, I know you have experienced what I have seen, so speak up, challenge it and change the approach, because remember, the definition of insanity is to try and get a different result from the same approach, and that’s the world of DEI right now

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